Grubbly Farms, an innovative food startup, takes on our current food sustainability problem with the help of black soldier flies. The startup is transforming the industry by selling the fly’s dehydrated larvae as a more sustainable protein and fat-heavy animal feed.
In 2015, Georgia Tech graduates and cousins Sean Warner and Patrick Pittaluga ordered 700 larvae of black soldier flies from Amazon and started growing them after reading about the large cultivation of insects in Europe and Asia. Warner and Pittaluga feed pre-consumer food waste from local organizations to the flies and as they eat it, the flies convert it into quality fertilizer. The larvae the flies produce is then harvested, dehydrated and sold as backyard chicken treats.
After attending Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X accelerator, the cousins moved their operation out of their laundry room and set up a pilot facility at one of Kennesaw State University’s greenhouses for seven months. Now, they are almost at the end of their Techstars New York stint. With one new full-time employee, they work out of a warehouse space in Doraville, Ga. but are looking to expand from offering chicken treats to making fish meal and pet treats.
Warner breaks down how the black soldier flies are the future of food, the lessons they learned as young entrepreneurs, and their plans for the next 18 months.
How do you use the black soldier fly at Grubbly Farms?
Our process is collecting food waste from different organizations and processing facilities and feeding it to the insects, so that as the insects eat through it, they break it down into a quality fertilizer and soil that we also can sell for home gardening. We actually raise the flies, and their sole purpose as a fly is to simply mate. We collect their eggs and then raise the larvae off of food waste that we collect, so we are also doing a recycling aspect in the company as well.
The larvae is what the real protein source comes from, what we’re actually harvesting and turning into proteins and fats. They are considered the “piranha” of the insect world in the sense that they are incredible efficient at breaking down organic matter.
It is a non-invasive species. It is found on every continent, it was native to North America and actually spread around the world during the mid-20th century. They don’t bite, sting or transmit diseases to humans. They actually don’t even have a mouth, so they have zero interest in food.
Grubbly Farms started in laundry room while you were at Georgia Tech. Where are you now?
We went from the laundry room to a greenhouse in parents’ back yard to a greenhouse in Kennesaw State University, and we were there for about 7 months or so working with the farm and actually doing some nutritional analysis with UGA. About two and a half months ago or so, we finally found a warehouse location. We’re currently located in Doraville, Georgia.
We were able to finally find a place that would allow us to actually do what we were doing. I will say a lot of people were quite iffy on it, it is an interesting topic to bring up and explain the process of breeding flies and raising larvae.
We were able to move in and right now, we’re still expanding out our current production to really scale up. We believe that when this warehouse is going to be fully operational, we’ll be recycling about 2 tons of food waste a day and outputting a few hundred pounds of insect-based protein every day.
Tell me about your experience in Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X program and how it kickstarted Grubbly Farms.
We started this about January of 2015. I graduated in May of 2015 and Patrick graduated in December of 2014. We started in the laundry room, and the major turning point was actually being accepted at Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X Startup Summer.
The CREATE-X program, which came with a 20,000 dollar convertible note for exchange for a percentage of equity, and it was a 10-week program that was the actual turning point that led to both of us turning down job offers upon graduating college and looking into pursuing this full-time. We really moved throughout that program being very new to entrepreneurship.
Until then, during the CREATE-X program, we had just been in a very small greenhouse in my parents’ back yard, actually. But even with that experience, it was still very new for both of us. This is my first startup, and we had a lot of learning to do. Georgia Tech did provide some incredible mentorship going through the first few weeks of trying to proof the concept out, doing customer discovery, find your MVP, and really see if there’s a viable business there. During the CREATE-X program, we had a very small greenhouse in my parents’ backyard.
What’s your current funding situation?
The CREATE-X program came with 20,000 dollars, which we basically used and then bootstrapped for the first year. We did have very low expenses, but we basically built everything ourself. For example, converting an old treadmill motor into a trommel, which is a sifting device for separating the larvae from the soil. We’ve currently done a round of family and friends, and then we are also currently going through the Techstars program up in New York City — it comes with a option of a convertible note upwards of 120,000 dollars. We will be looking for additional funding near the end of the Techstars program, at the end of September.
What problem are you solving?
Right now, about 10% of our ocean’s catch, we catch about 140 million tons of fish out of our oceans every year, and about 10% of that are the small schooling fish — like mackerel, sardines or herring. There are more or less directly processed into fish meal and fish oil, which are the protein and fat ingredients for majority of aquaculture and livestock feeds. Over the past few years, due to over fishing and increase in price with other resources, the cost of fish meal has increased in price by about 200% over the past 8 years or so.
It’s put a lot of undue hardships on farms of all sizes. Large farms have taken a hit, but it’s been more detrimental for small farms. The main reason behind that is livestock feed itself is the largest expense of raising any type of meat, whether it’s actual livestock or aquaculture. Our goal of this is to develop an alternative protein source that has a sustainable aspect of it, but to undercut the price of fish meal in the future so that we can continue producing feed at a cheaper rate, and in turn, continue producing meat products that are affordable.
We are mainly targeting aquaculture and poultry, initially. Aquaculture is the commercial farming of fish. Aquaculture uses the majority of fish meal that is produced around the world, however, there are a number of livestock animals that do use fish meal.
What’s your end goal with this product and revenue plan?
Though our end goal is to produce basically an insect-based protein and fat at the commercial level, even the smallest feed mills and fish farms that we spoke with still need an incredibly large quantity of ingredients just to supply the amount of animals they have. We’re actually entering the market selling the dehydrated larvae as treats for backyard chickens.
Though we’re starting in that industry, as I said, we plan to expand into actual chicken feed, dog treats, cat treats … The possibilities are endless considering protein is needed in almost every animal feed whether it’s for fish, livestock or your dog or cat at home.
As you learn more about navigating the startup world, what advice do you have for other new entrepreneurs?
One, if you’re young and don’t have too many responsibilities, now is the time to take a risk. Which I know people have heard continuously, forever, but it really is true. I would say if you’re new to a startup in general, try to find some sort of program that works together with like-minded people that are looking into startups or entrepreneurship. Because you can do it by yourself, however, it will have a steep learning curve. The amount of mentorships that we have received through the past year and a half has been just incredible as far as the insight they have. People have gone through this process before with different ideas,
If you have even a hint of an idea and you see potential there, do a little research on the background of it. See if there’s any potential there, and don’t be afraid to talk about it. That is what a lot of people that think they have the next brilliant idea, they want to keep it completely secret and the odds are that it’ll never turn into anything. The way to really get an idea out there is to talk about it — to find the good, the bad about it and find out how to really move it forward. There is the option of someone stealing your idea, but that still involves a ton of work on their end as well.
What are your plans for Grubbly Farms for the next 12 months?
We have one other full-time employee right now and we are building out an automated feeding system. We did have two interns that worked over the summer, one was an animal science major at UGA, and one was a bio-chem major at Emory University. They were tremendously helpful. Over the next 12 months, we really want to completely build out our process, perfect the logistics of actually collecting food waste and perfect the research and development of the technology that we’re actually developing to raise the larvae at higher densities. We will build out our entire warehouse and then in our projected about 12 to 18 months, we plan on looking for a larger warehouse space to expand into.
Photos via Grubbly Farms. Black Soldier Fly photo via Wikipedia/